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Opinion / Analysis / Essays


Boston Globe
March 28, 1999
Eric Goldscheider, Globe Correspondent

AMHERST -- Joan Straumanis likes the sound of "good noise" in the classroom. "No noise is bad noise," she said in an alcove of a high-tech classroom in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower on the Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts while Chemistry 122 was in progress.

If not for the instructor's voice, you could have heard a pin drop.

No noise means that students are passive participants in a process whereby the professor lectures and everyone else listens. Learning and retention is best achieved when students are actively engaged. That is often loud. Unfortunately, quiet is still a primary value in many classrooms, and teachers are slow to adopt new ideas in education or take advantage of new technology.

These observations were made during a conference called "How People Learn: Transforming the Science Classroom," which attracted more than 200 participants to the UMass campus last Monday.

As a program officer overseeing federal Department of Education efforts to improve the teaching of science, engineering, and medicine at the college level, Straumanis is trying to do something about what she terms the "tremendous wastage" in our educational systems in general and in science particularly. She is talking about the thousands of unproductive hours students spend in classrooms not learning nearly as much as they should or could. The failure rates in the sciences and mathematics "are much too high," she said.

The Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, the arm of the DOE at which Straumanis is based, has allocated more than $400,000 to two initiatives in the UMass chemistry department, she said. These grants are to develop applications for communications technology to make classrooms louder and more conducive to what researchers refer to as active learning.

At the heart of the conference was a report to be released in April called "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School." It is a synthesis of research done in the last 25 years on how people acquire and construct knowledge. The findings are emblematic of a movement in pedagogy toward "cognitive" theory, which looks at how mental processes and the formation of associations work to produce learning.

A 15-member panel named by the National Research Council compiled the report. UMass physics professor Jose Mestre was part of that team.

Before the report was presented last Monday, a small group of invited guests including Straumanis and Luther Williams, assistant director of the National Science Foundation, were taken into several classrooms to see a variety of new technologies meant to draw students into the learning process.

These included an initiative called OWL, or Online Web-based Learning, which allows students to submit homework from a personal computer and get instant feedback. Intelligent Tutors used in the mechanical engineering department to study hard-to-observe manufacturing processes such as injection molding, stamping, and forging were on display. Conferees also visited so-called classrooms of the future in the Lederle Graduate Research Tower and the biology lab where students use terminals loaded with course-specific software allowing them to manipulate concepts, images, formulas, and data, related to the lessons of the day.

Of special interest to Mestre are auditoriums where it is not uncommon, especially in big universities, for 300 or more undergraduates to attend a lecture. The format inherently lends itself to a passive mode of education. An instruction system called Classtalk, developed during the last seven years by a Virginia company in consultation with faculty in the UMass physics department, seeks to bring interactivity to large lectures. A few professors in the sociology, economics, and biology departments have adopted it, but it has been slow to gain acceptance at UMass. It is now used in more than 30 schools around the country, including Harvard University.

Several conference participants, including UMass-Amherst Chancellor David Scott, sat in on a 50-minute biology lecture that used Classtalk.

Each student uses a hand-held calculator plugged into a jack behind the seat. Students log on at the beginning of class with a personal identification number. At various points in the lecture, the professor posts multiple-choice or numerical questions on an overhead projector and gives students a limited time to discuss each problem with neighbors before punching an answer into the calculator.

The answers are tabulated and stored in a lap-top computer at the front of the room, and the collected responses are projected onto a screen in the form of a bar graph. Classtalk users point to several pedagogical benefits of the system. For one thing, it gives the lecturer instant feedback about how well the class is following the material. Without it, the only cue a teacher may get is when the students' eyes start to glaze over.

But the real beauty of the system, according to devotees, is the way it gets students to engage with one another. By having them discuss and often argue about the procedures used to arrive at an answer, they inevitably use the vocabulary and concepts of the discipline, gain new associations, and acquire a deeper understanding of the material. "This is the only way we know of having a large class with interactivity without losing control," said Mestre.

By submitting responses to questions electronically, students preserve a degree of anonymity that makes them more likely to take a stand or commit to an answer than when a teacher asks for a show of hands, notes Mestre. There are many creative ways in which the instructor can use the aggregated responses. Situations in which a lopsided majority of the class chooses the wrong answer provide a learning opportunity, said Mestre. He will often call on volunteers to defend one or another answer before making his own choice known. The discussion around a single question can last 15 minutes, drawing out correct as well as erroneous assumptions and approaches.

Mestre also uses Classtalk to take attendance. One question per lecture is designated as a quiz. Students get two points for a correct answer, one point if they get it wrong, and zero if they weren't there to participate.

Elizabeth Conner, who taught the biology class that conferees observed, said afterward that learning to use Classtalk effectively takes a considerable effort on the part of the instructor.

The biggest challenge is to come up with questions that stimulate thought and that convey the most important ideas of the day's lesson. Giving students in a class of 200 leave to speak among themselves adds a whole new dimension to classroom management. "It took me a while to learn how to handle the crowd," said Connor. "It's a noisy environment for that two-minute period."

Then there is the chance that the technology will break down.

Aaron Rutledge, a 19-year-old wildlife biology major taking Connor's class, said Classtalk is "kind of a pain; sometimes, especially at the beginning of the semester, it was kind of a nightmare." But by mid-semester he came to see it as a good thing. Rutledge said that staying awake in lectures, which can be a problem, is less of a challenge when Classtalk is used. Besides that, "It definitely helps me understand," he said.

Roland Chilton, who used Classtalk in his sociology class one semester, said he found it useful but was frustrated by technical glitches. He is looking forward to a promised next-generation of classroom communication systems, which, he said, are supposed to be wireless. Each student will have a device similar to the remote control for a television that sends an infrared signal to receivers at the front of the room.

Now, at a cost of $100 each for the graphing calculators used to plug into the system, it is an expensive proposition for students in the social sciences and humanities, who aren't likely to need such a device for other classes, to participate in a course using Classtalk.

Marty Abrahamson, product manager for Better Education Inc., which sells Classtalk, said the current cost of a system suitable for a 300-seat auditorium is $22,850. That price includes plans for installation and long-distance support but not the installation itself.

Even though UMass has two rooms wired for Classtalk, it is only being used in five courses this semester, four of which are in the physics department.

Craig Moore, a professor of political economy who attended the conference in his capacity as an aide to University of Massachusetts president William Bulger, is a longtime proponent of classroom-communications technologies. He acknowledges that they are underutilized and that there is a great deal of resistance among faculty to adapt to new teaching styles. "The truth is, we don't teach our professors how to teach," said Moore.

Even though a revolution in ideas about how learning takes place has been in gestation for a few decades, said Moore, new gadgets have the capacity to bring them into the classroom in a big way. "I think that the pedagogy is catching up to the technology," he said.

The technology costs money, but even more money is needed to create incentives for professors to take time to learn how to use the technology and to rethink the ways in which they present material. "The human resources are much more expensive than the hardware and software," Moore said.

Straumanis, of the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, shares Moore's frustration with the difficulty in getting professors to adapt. Asked to comment on her assessment of how well the federal money UMass receives to promote better science education is being spent, her response was guarded. "I'm hoping," she said, "that a large faculty development effort will follow.

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